The question of whether schools affect student achievement has been debated ever since the publication of James C. Coleman's landmark 1966 study, "Equality of Educational Opportunity" -- commonly known as the Coleman Report.
Coleman was not an educator but a sociologist who pioneered the use of large data sets to ask and answer large policy questions. He and his colleagues came to a conclusion that shocked many people at the time -- they found that schools have less of an effect on student achievement than the qualities that students bring with them.
Coleman didn't find that schools have no effect. But the Coleman Report has led to a whole line of education research arguing that the characteristics students bring with them (socioeconomic background, education of their parents, nutrition, etc.) are paramount, and what schools do to improve academic achievement is secondary at best.
As someone who has visited dozens of high-achieving high-poverty schools, I have seen that well-organized schools dedicated to quality instruction can be amazingly effective at improving academic achievement among children who arrive with very little of what is called social capital, so I find that research very frustrating -- but there is no denying its power and influence.
It is not the only research literature that is out there, though. Another whole line of research has focused on the ways that schools influence student achievement, from how they are organized to their instructional practices. Recently, I stumbled onto one of the early contributions to what is known as "school effectiveness research."
The 1979 study, Fifteen Thousand Hours, was by another non-educator who was also a pioneer in the use of large data sets to ask and answer large policy questions -- Michael Rutter. He's actually Sir Michael Rutter, being a renowned UK citizen.
Rutter is widely acknowledged as one of the premier child psychiatrists in the world, having done some of the foundational work on autism, resilience, and the effects of early trauma on child development (he led the study of the children who were living in horrendous Romanian orphanages when Nicholas Ceausescu fell from power).
Partly because of the Coleman Report, Rutter became interested in the question of whether schools could have an effect on student achievement and child development and whether schools differed in their effects depending on how they were organized.
The big problem with trying to answer the question he had asked is the difficulty in controlling for student characteristics. What Rutter did was very clever. He took advantage of the fact that there had been a large-scale study of a couple of thousand elementary school children in London that had gathered all kinds of information, including the children's father's occupation, reading scores, discipline records, and teachers' observations.
He and a team of researchers followed up with those students who went on to 12 non-selective secondary schools in a dismal and economically depressed part of London and, after controlling for "inputs" (the backgrounds of their students), found that some secondary schools had more success than others on a whole range of measures, from academic achievement to attendance and delinquency.
In fact, Rutter and his colleagues found that there were quite extreme differences.
"We may conclude," the study says, "that the results carry the strong implication that schools can do much to foster good behavior and attainments, and that even in disadvantaged areas, schools can be a force for good."
Fifteen Thousand Hours was a big, complicated study in which Rutter and his team qualified their conclusions very carefully, so quoting from that original study would take more words than you would read, but they identified what they called "school ethos" as an explanation for the difference that schools can make. In a 2002 paper that followed up on his original study, Rutter summed up what he meant by that term:
The overall school organization or management features that stand out include good leadership that provides strategic vision, staff participation with a shared vision and goals, appropriate rewards for collegial collaborative working, attendance to staff needs and rewards, and effective home-school partnership.
The ethos qualities that have been associated with good pupil progress include an orderly atmosphere, an attractive working environment, appropriate well-conveyed high expectations, the involvement of pupils in taking responsibilities, positive rewards with feedback and clear fair discipline, positive models of good teacher behavior, a focus on achievement and good behavior, and good teacher-pupil relationships in and outside the classroom.
All of this tallies very closely with everything I've seen in high-achieving high-poverty schools.
The trick, of course, is to put all those things into place in unique school contexts.
By the way, the Education Trust National Conference will be bringing together quite a few educators who have managed that trick and who will be sharing what they've learned along the way. If you want to hear for yourself how educators can build a "school ethos" that promotes high academic achievement, you should join us this November in Baltimore.